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Media and Representation

A Gay (Straight) Girl (Man) in Damascus (Edinburgh)

The Politics Behind the Roleplay

Contributed by Ali Abbas and Assia Boundaoui

Tom MacMaster and his wife Britta Froelicher. This picture was in a Picasa album titled "Syria/It's THE BEST!" This picture was is in the same album that contained the nine pictures Amina Araf sent to a friend. (NPR's text)

In a queer turn of events it has been exposed that Amina Arraf, known to most as the “Gay Girl in Damascus” is no more than a contrived Orientalist avatar of one 40-year-old white man from Georgia, Tom MacMaster. The first words that came to mind upon hearing the news, were “ILAAN KOS…” but we’re trying to refrain from wasting our indignation on curses (albeit justified) and re-orient the conversation into a productive analysis of what MacMaster’s hoax means for the position of Arabs in western media.

The Violence of Representation:

More than just speaking for Syrian activists, or Syrian women, or Syrian lesbians, as so many righteous liberal Westerners “interested” in the Middle East so often do, Tom MacMaster, in his own words,  “created a voice,” and in doing so redefined what representation means for Arabs in western media – we call it ventriloquism. In creating the “dummy,” Anima, through the blog Gay Girl in Damascus, MacMaster became the mouthpiece for an entire class of Syrian people while denying Syrians (activists/women/lesbians/all of the above) the right to a voice in an already one-sided global media.

In this violent act of representation in which language and meaning was appropriated, MacMaster detracted from the stories of REAL Syrians who risk their lives daily in opposition to the dictatorship of the Assad regime. Not only did the attention received by MacMasters fake blog rob Syrians of their own voice, it put them in danger in a very real way.

MacMaster, in all of his privileged splendor as a straight American white man, appropriated and “outed” his avatar Amina as a lesbian activist, and in doing so put numerous queer Syrians at risk. Writing from a cozy home in Georgia/Edinburgh/Turkey bares no risk, allowing for plenty of slack when it comes to accuracy and accountability. Yet the victims will ultimately not be the MacMasters of the world, the phony bleeding heart liberals, but the people on the ground that Amina fails to represent.

Daniel Nassar, a moniker for a Syrian Lesbian activist, blogged a furious response to the hoax, explaining that MacMaster, “took away my voice… and the voices of many people who I know. To bring attention to yourself and blog…you single-handledly managed to bring unwanted attention from authorities to our cause.” LGBT folk, like Nassar, who have been doing the ground work to better the conditions in which they live now have to combat the overreaching imaginations of gung-ho white men in the West as much as they do the unjust laws and social stigma of their own regimes.

In creating Gay Girl in Damascus and appropriating the identity of a gay Syrian woman, MacMaster violently drowned out the voices of so many Syrians undergoing REAL persecution, and detention for their dissent (and identities) against the brutal regime. As much as MacMaster relishes his role play an Arab lesbian, he fails to realize that the politics arising from that identity are earned through a lifetime of hardship and inescapable pleasures and punishment, not enthusiasm for the romanticism of a region.

Neo-Orientalist Media Titillation

Regardless of whatever lazy apology MacMaster nervously reaches for, Amina was never intended to be a fictional character for the betterment of women or LGBT people in the Middle East. She is a western fantasy intended to arouse and titillate the western sensibilities to feel, not act. This is the ultimate neo-orientalism as it not only re-imagines an existing geographic location, but invents an entire human landscape.

Because the avatar in question is a gay woman, the international media was quick to eat it up, already confirming their notions and desires for how LGBT people and women live their lives in the Middle East. In fact Amina’s story tells us more about the West than it does Syria. The cyber ghost was so easily welcomed  by the media and concerned readers because she is symbolic of all the tropes which Westerners use to position themselves as superior interpreters of Middle East society and culture.

One shouldn’t need the sensationalized fictional narrative of a lesbian Syrian woman to affirm the rights of Syrian demonstrators who are being brutally repressed by their governments. But if the goal is to arouse emotion and entertain, then MacMaster has succeeded in proving that the truth about Arabs comes secondary to Western perceptions and feelings towards them.

MacMaster has succeeded in proving that that the truth about Arabs comes secondary to Western perceptions and feelings towards them.

Reaffirming this point is the Washington Post article on MacMaster in which the authors claim that,  “the hoax raised new questions about the reliance on blogs, Tweets, Facebook postings and other Internet communications as they increasingly become a standard way to report on global events.”

For Arabs grasping on to the short end of the media stick, MacMaster’s mess is not a nuanced analysis of the importance of fact checking. To the contrary, this is a particular issue that speaks to the agency of Arab voices slowly being drowned out in a world of lazy journalism, and false reaches for objectivity.

The Violent Aftermath

Ultimately MacMaster has aided the Assad regime and other dictatorial bodies of government by confirming what the Arab dictators have been saying all along: that the uprisings are simply a conceived Western ploy. With the creation of the “Amina dummy,” MacMaster has managed to turn anti-revolutionary regime propaganda into truth by providing evidence that certain narratives of the revolution are fabrications of the West. Because this revolution is being fought on a battle field of (mis)information and truth, every single contribution is a decisive battle in which the outcome of an entire people is at stake – something MacMaster should be held accountable for jeopardizing.

The Arab revolutions are not events for the Western gaze to speculate and draw inspiration – they are real lived and often-times bloody moments that shape, destroy and rebuild the lives of living, breathing people.

Equally infuriating is the insincere “apology” MacMaster posts on his blog in which he ironicly echoes the rhetoric of the Assad regime and explains that his fabrication of a person and misdirection of a people was for the greater good. So if we are to take MacMaster’s “apology” sincerely then we are inadvertently embracing his philosophy – the belief that your voice doesn’t matter if you’re a (queer/female/activist) Arab because some white man in American can always write your story better.

Ali Abbas and Assia Boundaoui are New York based writers and freelance-journalists that submitted a blood test and birth certificate to affirm that the above thoughts are their own analysis based on a lifetime of Arab and or queer and or American and or woman identification.

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